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Sebastian – Sundance 2024 (Film Review)

3 min read

Sex work has always been a taboo subject in general, never mind on screen. The industry is highly stigmatised, with portrayals of sex work steeped in drugs and abuse for forced drama. Thankfully, in recent years there have been more positive, nuanced, and truthful stories. Sebastian, the sophomore feature from director Mikko Mäkelä, is another film that authentically explores sex work in the modern world, but it's a film not without faults.

Sebastian (Ruaridh Mollica) is introduced as the titular character, a young man from Edinburgh living in London whilst on what seems to be his first gig as a sex worker. Both the client and worker are nervous but they eventually carry out the deed; the customer is satisfied, Sebastian gets his cash. Whilst sex workers commonly use fabricated identities for safety, it turns out the real ‘Sebastian' is a writer developing a novel about contemporary sex work. Max, the man behind Sebastian, is living a double life as a freelance writer and a sex worker, and the two become intertwined.

This isn't a film solely about sex work but about the life of a writer too, and it's the exploration of the former that is the most successful and engaging. Max chooses to go into sex work, which is an accurate reflection of people breaking into the industry, and he gains confidence and enjoyment through his work. What is also refreshing to see are his typical clients; older men who aren't viewed as horrible, ageing monsters but human beings with needs and wants. But it isn't all sunshine and rainbows — one or two characters don't treat Max nicely and make their disgust towards him known — but this honest mix of highs and lows paints an accurate portrait of what being a sex worker is like.

It's when Sebastian focuses on Max the writer that the film loses its footing. There are glimpses of who Max really is as he ignores calls from his mum and slinks past socialising housemates, but there's no sense of his actual character and drive other than a determination to be a successful writer. To make ends meet, he works as a freelancer for a journalistic outlet and there's a tired subplot about running an interview with a particular author. Though his sex work does affect his day job, there's little on offer when the film delves into his more mundane day job.  

Ultimately, the film will be talked about and judged by how it portrays sex work and what it has to say. Most of the clients and partners Max interacts with are, generally speaking, welcoming, open, and respectful. Not just to Max but the profession and industry as a whole. It's Max himself who has a negative outlook, which eats him up and leads him on a downward spiral. His anxiety is brilliantly conveyed through tight camera compositions, a haunting score and a convincing performance from Mollica, but its messaging might say different things to different audiences.

On the one hand, it gives Sebastian an interesting edge about how someone can lose themselves when navigating two lives. When one of those lives involves being an escort, it suggests that it's not the line of work that moulds people, but rather that societal views and prejudices can affect an individual, making them see everything through a particular lens. On the other hand, however, having a sex worker stumble through a self-destructive path is tiring and could potentially lead to negative connotations of sex work as a whole. Sebastian is clearly striving to tell a nuanced story that lets the audience make up their own mind, but when it comes to a sensitive topic, sometimes you need to take a clear stance. 

Thankfully the third act ties everything up nicely in a narratively sound, if a little cliched, manner. Whilst it doesn't undo any of the bloat or mixed messaging, it's hard to deny the ambition, the good intent, and the filmmaking talent in putting everything together. Sebastian is still worth a watch, especially when the film's best moments truly do shine. 

Sebastian premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The film is currently seeking international distribution.